Recently, through a mutual acquaintance (Fr. Anthony Messeh), I was introduced to Francella Brown when she planned a trip to Atlanta to visit the St. Mary & St. Demiana Convent. In spite of a very short time knowing her, it’s hard not to immediately embrace her infectious personality, and I regard her as a very dear friend. Of course, after confirming she was a convert to Orthodoxy, I had to ask her about her background and what led her to wanting to come visit a Coptic convent. With her permission, I recorded her inspirational story so that I may share it with others, for the glory of God. I’m providing her story as a recorded podcast, as well as in written blog posts, in two parts.
Here is part one of her story:
For the audio upon which the following post is based, you can listen here:
*Forgive the sound quality of the recording as it was recorded during a long car ride.
I’ve also created a Podcast channel which will allow you to subscribe to this and any other future audio feeds from my blog in the future: Orthodox Christian Meets World iTunes PODCAST CHANNEL
Francella Brown, or as her friends call her, “Franny,” of Jamaican and Cuban descent, was born in Canada and raised in a Baptist church. Her family life was filled with much turmoil: parents’ divorce, along with sibling discord and disunity to the point of completely severing communication among many of them. By the age of 9, everyone, including Franny, had stopped going to church and everyone began to seek their own satisfaction in the world.
Life in the world, away from God
Franny was no exception. Partying, clubbing, drinking, unhealthy friendships, and physical relations were sought after to fill the emptiness she felt inside.
I was seeking relationships with men, who quite frankly didn’t care about me, and in the back of my mind I knew they didn’t, but I would try and convince myself that, “no, no, no, I can get what my friends have, which is love,” but because I didn’t care about myself, that reflected the quality of relationships I was going towards. And they could see that I didn’t care about myself. They used me and I tried to pretend that I wasn’t being used, but deep down inside I knew it.
Like the Samaritan woman, traditionally regarded as bearing the name “Photini,” Franny sought after men rather than God. In fact, the story of the Samaritan woman is so dear to her that Franny usually introduces herself with that name—which she took during her baptism in the Coptic Orthodox Church. She elaborates on why she loves Photini’s story:
It’s my story. She was always looking for love. She is not a bad person. No one is. Everyone is looking in the wrong places for the same thing. She went from person to person, from man to man to man, looking for what cannot be fulfilled and satisfied in her by anyone but God.
It was very significant that the Lord said to her that “You have had five husbands and the one whom you have now is not even your husband”—six—and six is an incomplete number. And then she meets the seventh one, Jesus, by the well, and He becomes her everything, and seven is the number of completion in the Bible. And that was it. Her search was done. She stopped searching and started to tell the world about who this is.
She went back to the people who condemned her in her own society and she said, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could He be the Messiah?”
[The people were astonished, thinking] “He knows everything you did and He still accepts you? Because we know everything you did and we don’t accept you.” It goes to show how much she was redeemed, and that the Lord did not cast her away, but He redeemed her.
30 years old—The Turning Point
At 30 years old, she hit rock bottom, feeling absolutely worthless. Nonetheless, she was committed to living her reckless lifestyle. She was convinced that she would either find happiness or die trying; whichever came to her first, she did not really care. “There was no value for life,” Franny reminisces, “because it wasn’t life as far as I’m concerned. It was just surviving.”
She knew God was there but, admittedly, tuned Him out. In moments of sadness God would come to her mind, but although she knew He was present, she did not know why He would care about her.
A lot of times the way we feel about ourselves, if we do not know who God is properly, if we don’t know God’s word, if we don’t know who He is from the teachings of the Fathers that date back to the apostles…. If we don’t know the truth, then we take what we feel about ourselves and project that onto God and say that must be how He feels about me. Or if we have a bad relationship with a parental figure and we are thinking God is a parent, then the way my relationship is with this parental figure must be the way my relationship with God is going to be. And then we end up shutting the door. I figured that God wouldn’t love me because I don’t love me and didn’t feel my family really loved me. I knew He was there but why would I go to Him, and what would I say? And you feel a lot of shame for the way you are living your life.
As Franny’s 30th birthday approached, she wanted to do something “epic,” as she called it, to overshadow her feeling of inadequacy as compared with how far many of her friends had progressed in terms of marriage and children. One friend had just returned from a honeymoon and described various countries they visited during their trip to Europe, and one country stuck out the most: France.
So, not knowing much French, she went to Paris by herself, where suddenly she felt alone. She arrived at her hotel and did not know where to go or what to do. Each day she would venture out a little further from her hotel than the day before. Not knowing anyone, not speaking to anyone, the world somehow was silenced and Franny was left with confronting God in herself. One day she came across a beautiful Catholic church and decided to walk in. While inside, she says:
I couldn’t help but come face-to-face with Him. “Lord, I am in your house, but I still feel that this is just a building. But it’s not a building. It’s Your house. Let me feel Your presence. Please let me feel Your presence.”
And I did.
I was so overcome by it. I ended up sitting down right where I was standing and I just started crying, and the tears kept flowing and flowing. It was a very cleansing “I’m done running” cry.
That single moment, where the chaotic world slowed down, and God’s presence flooded her being, Franny changed. She left asking God to change her life. She returned for mass on Sunday. For the rest of the trip she felt as if God kept speaking to her, asking, “Are you done running from me? Are you ready to talk to me now?”
Because I’m in a city by myself that is completely foreign to me, and I don’t speak the language, and I don’t have any people with me to talk and drown out God’s voice, and I’m walking around essentially in silence, that was why I was able to hear Him. And I said, “Yeah, I’m ready to come back to You. I can’t do this anymore.”
She felt God wanted to know how far Franny would go to change her life, and her heart exclaimed that she would do anything. And one word kept resounding inside her head: “Obey.” Unfamiliar with her Bible, she didn’t know that obedience is so fundamental to one’s walk with God.
Franny returned to Canada and went back to life as usual, mostly. People, music, TV, bad relationships, etc., stayed the same; but when she was alone at home, she would converse with God. She found a Bible in her house and decided to read the gospel of John, and she fell in love with it. She continued to immerse herself in Scripture and continued to be moved by everything she was reading, and God’s love she was experiencing. She joined a semi-clandestine Bible study at work. And then, as would normally happen during her nighttime quiet times with God, she felt God was compelling her toward something: this time, she felt compelled to find and join a church.
One year after her trip to Paris, she joined a Pentecostal (Protestant) church.
She began to leave her old relationships, and delved into knowing God through Scripture and prayer.
Orthodox prayer practices before any familiarity with Orthodoxy at all
There were several practices Franny began to introduce into her prayer life that unbeknown to her were features of Orthodox Christian worship and spiritual life. No one had taught her these things:
One of the things is, when I was sitting and reading my Bible, I would feel the need to take a towel or a scarf or a sheet and cover my head, because I felt God’s presence was so strong, and I felt I needed something to cover me … to show that, “In front of You who am I? I am so small.”
There was another thing that I started to do. I would sit and I would read the psalms. I was like, “These are songs. These are not poems that are supposed to be spoken.” So I would start to try and put a tune to the psalms. I would just try and make up a tune…. So I would make up a tune. It probably sounded horrible, but it felt good to do that.
And then, when I would be on my knees and I would be praying, I would bow down and put my forehead to the ground, just in reverence of God, to get as low as I could before Him…. I remember asking some of the people at my Bible study, at my church, “Do you do this,” and they were like, “No, that’s not something that we feel driven to do,” but I remember one guy said, “It sounds like the Holy Spirit is leading you in worship, so go ahead and do it… It sounds like you are honoring God.”
I would take retreats with the Lord. I would take a week off of work and go somewhere. It was always better if I could travel at least several hours away and get to an environment by myself and sit and be with him for a week, and pray and fast.
Sharing God’s Love, and an important locale to remember: Nathan Phillips Square
Franny was so overwhelmed with God’s presence that she wanted to share God’s love with others. On her own initiative, without anyone knowing, she would go downtown and look for homeless people on the street to express love for.
I just had to talk with them. I had to shake their hands, let them know they had an identity. People walk past [them] and pretend [they’re] not there…. A lot of times homeless might ask for [money] but they are actually asking for something else. At the end of the day people are always asking for something else, but there is a means to get to that…
Franny would buy them lunch, and would just speak with them and assure them they are loved and not forgotten. In spite of “hundreds of people a day that pass by you and ignore you,” Franny would say, “God knows exactly who you are. He knows the number of hairs that are on your head and that number changes constantly. He would not let two sparrows fall without knowing. How much more do you think He loves you? You are His child, and are made in His image.”
On one occasion, in Nathan Phillips Square, an urban Plaza in downtown Toronto, she saw a homeless man who was passed out with a bottle of alcohol next to him, and she felt overwhelmed. She sat on a nearby concrete bench and told God how she felt, that as one person she is not really impacting anyone to change. “I am one person. I have no one to do this with. My heart and my desire to do change is bigger than my capacity.” With a heavy heart, she prayed and asked that God would clothe everyone, feed everyone, and also send her someone to help her in this service. As soon as she concluded the prayer with “Amen,” a remarkable gust of wind blew which nearly lifted her off of the concrete bench, which she took to as a sign from God that He heard her.
First step getting to know the Coptic Church: how one person changed her life, again
At one point in time, Franny and some friends planned a camping trip. Around that time Franny kept feeling like the Lord was speaking to her the word “Daniel,” over and over again. She thought God was leading her to read the Book of Daniel. This was not an uncommon situation, where she would feel led to read something, and she would search through her Bible and feel she had derived some answer or special message for God. This time, however, she didn’t feel compelled to open Scripture. The few times she tried to read the Book of Daniel, she couldn’t even get past the first chapter. Franny was not convinced that this was what God was trying to tell her.
As she picked up her phone to dial a friend named “Dennis” who was planning on going on the camping trip with the group, Franny accidentally messaged someone named Daniel that was in her phone. She had forgotten this person was even in her phone. She had only met him once before, about 2 years before her return to God. She messaged who she thought was Dennis about the camping trip, and she received a response from Daniel who asked, “Who is this?”
“Sorry, wrong number,” Franny quickly responded.
Apparently Daniel had kept Franny’s number in his phone because he wrote back again and said, “Francella, is this you?” They went back and forth.
Daniel then proposed that they meet up at the end of summer. “This is going to be so awkward,” thought Franny. She felt she needed to meet him sooner, so she proposed meeting the same week. Daniel agreed. Franny thought to herself that maybe God was wanting her to preach to him about Christianity. Before their meeting she even asked several friends to pray for her in preparation for this meeting where she thought she would be introducing Christ to Daniel.
When they finally met up with each other, Franny shortly got to the point, telling Daniel about her change of direction in her walk with God, and inquired as to whether Daniel had ever considered a relationship with Jesus Christ. “Yeah, I’m a Christian!” Daniel replied.
Franny was confused. “What kind of Christian?”
“I’m Coptic Orthodox,” he told her.
Further confused, Franny inquired: “What is Coptic, and what is Orthodox?” Several thoughts ran through her mind:
When he said that [he was Coptic Orthodox], I was thinking, “[But], do you have a relationship with Jesus?” Because that is how Protestants think. Protestants think that people who are Orthodox or Catholic don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that charismatic personal relationship. That is how I was taught to think about Catholics; I had never heard of Orthodox. So I thought maybe it’s the same kind of thing.
So Franny asked him, “Do you have a relationship with Jesus?” Daniel affirmed he did. “So you know Christianity?”
Daniel assured her he did and told her about a new Coptic Orthodox parish he had begun to attend—The St. Maurice and St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church—whose mission included focusing on providing a multicultural church ministering to diverse members of the body of Christ from every nation, tongue, tribe, and language. It is well known within the Coptic diaspora as being a parish that conducts its services entirely in English, and is filled with many non-Egyptian converts to the Coptic Orthodox Church. After Daniel explained some of the community outreach and ministry programs the parish conducts, Franny was left befuddled: “Why am I here,” she wondered.
Franny invited Daniel to visit her Church, and after indicating he wouldn’t mind it, he reciprocated the invite, to which Franny indicated she was not interested. She was perfectly happy where she was.
The conversation fizzled out, and then Daniel told her about something he and his friends were doing on Friday nights, and invited her to join. “If you ever want to join us on a Friday night, me and my friends get together… we just started this really cool service where we go to the homeless downtown in Toronto and we bring them sandwiches, and bottles of water, and maybe blankets, and we sit and pray with them and we talk to them.”
Upon hearing this, Franny was in utter disbelief. “Are you serious? You guys do that?”
“Yeah, would you be interested?” Daniel asked.
“Yes! You have no idea! Where do you meet?”
Daniel responded: “Nathan Phillips Square.”
Franny couldn’t believe it. She was in such disbelieve she couldn’t even prompt herself to tell Daniel that night that this was something she had specifically prayed about. She was in so much shock that she just kept repeatedly saying, “I’ll be there.”
It was Fridays with this group of Egyptian people who were the most beautiful human beings I had ever met. They had such passion and love for God and were so loving and open to me and welcoming to me, and I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting that kind of an embrace. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that kind of an embrace really ever.
I met the Coptic Church—because the church is the body… the Holy Spirit lives within us—I met the Coptic Church, not in the church building, but in the middle of Toronto. And they showed me what Coptic Orthodoxy was. They showed me the love of Christ. and I was so fulfilled and I couldn’t wait every Friday to meet up with these guys. We went around, we prayed with people, we talked with people, we brought them food, we brought them water, somebody’s mom would make sandwiches for us, and we had this incredible fellowship.
I invited a whole bunch of my friends who were Christian, who weren’t Christian, and we would gather together, and you had this mix of people from the Protestant Church, and people who weren’t practicing, people who were from the Orthodox Church; we would get together, pray together, and go out and serve the homeless on Friday nights, continuously.
Franny steps into a Coptic Orthodox Church for the first time
Daniel eventually invited Franny to come to an adults meeting held at the St. Maurice & St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church. One of the meetings involved a topic that Daniel had felt Franny would not be interested in. Daniel was very hesitant when it came to evangelizing and he worried that the particular topic would somehow cause Franny to reject the Coptic Church. As he or his sister usually would, Daniel drove to pick up Franny and give her a ride to the church, but first they went to dinner and Daniel kept delaying, so that by the time they arrived at church, the meeting was over.
Franny saw a Chinese Coptic church member named Leonard, which did not seem at all unusual to her (although later she learned how special this particular parish was to have so many non-Egyptian Copts). He introduced himself and asked if she was able to make it for the meeting. Franny indicated she missed it and asked what the topic was about.
“Metanoia,” Leonard told her.
“What’s that?” Franny asked.
Leonard explained it was about repentance and prostration, and lowering one’s head down to the ground. Franny was ecstatic. “I do that!” she thought. She kept saying, “This is crazy,” and asked Lenoard to explain as much as he could.
Daniel saw how much Franny liked the young adults group, so he invited her to visit the Church on Sunday. Franny walked in and was bewildered.
I was so ignorant, so naïve, I thought it was going to look exactly like church looked for me, and it didn’t look anything like [that]. We’re standing up, we’re sitting down, we’re standing up, we’re sitting down. And I’m looking around and I’m like, “Am I even praying right now? I don’t feel like I’m praying.” It was just not the worship that I’m used to.
But as I looked around I saw two things:
I saw the women; their heads were covered. And I instantly identified with that because it was something that I was doing.
And then I noticed that what was on the screen were the words of God… psalms, and they were said to a tune. And I was like, “That’s what I’ve been doing at home!”
So as foreign as all of it was to me, I couldn’t deny those three things. The metanoia, the women covering their heads, and the liturgy in that it was put to a tune and you are singing God’s words in a tune as opposed to just saying them or reciting them.
After liturgy, when Daniel reluctantly asked if Franny would like to return some time, fearing that she would be turned off by how different the worship was, Franny told him she definitely wanted to come back. Franny did so for several weeks. Then she felt she had to return to the Protestant church since she had been away for so long.
Falling out with the Pentecostal Church
When she returned to the Pentecostal Church, much to her surprise, the church members not only inquired as to where she had been, but they expressed tremendous hurt by her absence. When they learned from her that she had been attending an Orthodox church, they felt even more so betrayed. Franny, in her naivety thought to herself, “What’s the big deal? We are all Christians. We can go to to a whole bunch of churches right?” To appease the Pentecostal church members and alleviate the strain she had caused, Franny made a concerted effort not to miss another Sunday with them and told Daniel she had to take a break from the Coptic Church, to mend the offenses she had inadvertently caused.
The more Franny attended the Pentecostal Church, though, the more things felt strange. People no longer expressed their former loving embrace. They seemed to have been so injured by Franny’s “betrayal” that they would not let it go. At one point the pastor’s wife, who had been very loving and caring in the past, gave Franny a very disgruntled “dirty” look and walked away. No matter what Franny tried to do to mend things, nothing seemed to work.
On the other hand, when every so often she would revisit the Coptic Church, the greeting was the complete opposite: arms spread wide open. “I just felt so much love in one place and so much condemnation in the other,” Franny recalls.
Finally, Franny sat with her pastor at the Pentecostal Church and explained it was not her intention to leave. She expressed that she intended on attending both churches. “I’m sorry, you can’t be divided,” the pastor retorted. “A seed can’t constantly be put into soil over here and taken out and put into soil over there. Where are you going to spring up roots?”
Franny, in her simplicity, said, “Aren’t you both Christians!” At this point in time she did not understand the significance of theology and the major differences between the Protestant and Orthodox Churches.
The Pastor explained that the Orthodox church may teach something different than the Pentecostal Church, and so that was not a workable solution. Franny felt so much anger from the pastor that she left the office in tears. She had tried to make everything right all this time and no one was forgiving her unless she renounced the Coptic Church.
Then Franny went to sit with Fr. Pishoy at the Coptic Church, because she felt like she had to choose one church or the other. Fr. Pishoy kindly told her:
The door is open. You are always welcome to come here. I’m not forcing you to choose anything at all. This is your home. You are always welcome, and I am always with you, and will always pray for you, and you can always come to me for anything. No matter where you go. No matter what you do.
Franny could not help but gravitate towards where she was being loved unconditionally. At that point in time she made the decision to stay with the Orthodox Church.
In the next blog post to conclude Franny’s story, you will get to learn more about the following questions:
- What was it like as a catechumen?
- What was the most difficult Orthodox belief/practice to get accustomed to?
- How did you handle the Midnight Praises and the veneration of St. Mary you found there?
- What would you say to someone who is struggling with the same issue regarding the veneration of the Saints? What would you tell someone else who comes from a Protestant background?
- How did baptism come about, and what has your experience been since being baptized?
- How has your relationship in the Church, its rites, and the Church Fathers developed since baptism?
- In developing your spiritual life, what has helped you.
- What do you say to those within the Coptic Orthodox Church who seek fulfillment outside of the Orthodox Church, particularly from Protestant sources?
- The Coptic Language, was it a stumbling block for you?
- Do you think that the Coptic language should be eradicated from the Coptic Church?
- Having visited the convent of St. Mary & St. Demiana in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern U.S.A., what is your experience having done so and what do you like about it?